The Pre- and Postnatal Practice That Will Restore Your Body

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If you are an expectant mother or have recently given birth, you are probably very familiar with well-meaning friends, family members, and strangers sharing their differing opinions on when and where you should resume exercise before and after giving birth. These people may have you questioning who you should listen to when it comes to your overall health and wellness. While studies show that exercising up to seven times a week is not only safe but also beneficial for pregnant women, public opinion remains fiercely divided on the topic.

Marianne Tafani, a core function expert and creator of the prenatal and postnatal instructor course at Pilates Academy Dubai, has investigated the subject thoroughly throughout the years, most notably when she decided to create a prenatal and postnatal course for Pilates instructors last year. While raising a two-year-old boy, over the past two years, Tafani has trained over 160 women entering motherhood. Her five-session diastasis repair program offered every month is now a must-attend event for new mothers. Today, she’s sharing with us some of the latest research on how to restore your body before and after giving birth.

Protect and Restore Your Core

During pregnancy, your abdomen expands to make room for your baby, thereby stretching the linea alba, which is the tissue that your six-pack muscles attach to. If you have ever heard a woman complain about her gap after having a baby, she’s referring to the gap in her abdominals, or diastasis recti. This separation and thinning of abdominals is more often than not responsible for a flabby or pregnant-looking tummy long after the birth of a baby. It also contributes to issues such as incontinence and umbilical hernias, which at times can require surgery.

As those abdominals stretch during your pregnancy, the aggravated curvature in your lower back caused by the weight of the growing uterus brings your deep abdominals into passive mode. Before the baby, you need strong, deep abdominal muscles to help you protect the linea alba from pressure and load. Postnatally, you need them to close the gap and flatten your stomach, yet that’s exactly when your deep abdominals choose to be passive because of postural changes.

What Research Shows

You must train your deep abdominals, but you should not train your six-pack muscles during pregnancy and early motherhood. A recent study of 300 first-time Scandinavian mothers found an approximate 50 percent prevalence of diastasis recti at six months postpartum.

The strengthening of your transverse abdominis (TrA), the corset-like muscle across your lower stomach, is one of the best ways to use controlled tension on the linea alba to close the gap and prevent the middle of your abdominals from over-stretching during pregnancy.

How Pilates Helps

All Pilates exercises require an engagement of your TrA. In fact, there is no other discipline that focuses as intensely on the integrity of your abdominal activation during movement. During pregnancy, its strengthening protects your linea alba. After you have your baby, its strengthening helps close your gap, protect and hold your organs, and keep you leak-free.

Prepare Your Pelvic Floor

Your pelvic floor muscles are an ample hammock of muscles linking your sit bones to your tailbone and pubic bone, supporting your hips as well as your organs (bladder, uterus, bowels). They are also part of your core and work in conjunction with your TrA. These muscles are involved in your intimate life and keep you from awkward leaking situations. They are also at the most risk of damage during childbirth, even during empowering births and especially if your baby comes out too fast.

Your Pilates instructors may say that tightening your pelvic floor is dangerous for birth, prolongs labor, and puts you at risk for tearing. Tightening is indeed dangerous for labor when those muscles need to open so your baby can go through the birth canal smoothly. However, knowledgeable prenatal and postnatal Pilates instructors will show you how to contract and lift those muscles, as well as release them fully.

What Research Shows

It has been shown that continence issues tend to increase after birth. In fact, research has found that 45 percent of women still have leaks at seven years postpartum, and this figure soars after menopause. However, studies also show that correctly training your pelvic floor during pregnancy influences birth positively, resulting in shorter stage one (dilatation) and stage two (birthing) labor.

The same meta-study also discovered that women who train their pelvic floor three times a day for short sets of eight to 12 near maximal contractions experience less damage during birth, as well as experience a faster recovery.

How Pilates Helps

Pilates has been found to bring awareness to the role of pelvic floor muscles in supporting the weight of our limbs during movement, thereby strengthening them more effectively and more accurately. In class, you will be taught to fire up those muscles before incurring a load, whether it be your weight or some other external weight.

Avoid Shoulder, Back, and Pelvic Issues

Under the effect of hormones, ligaments are loosened and joints become unstable. You may experience lower back pain, tendonitis, tightness in the neck (with or without migraines), sciatica, or pubic symphysis dysfunction as a result. Your body’s changing center of gravity under the weight of your baby and breasts may intensify such issues.

What Research Shows

The 3S — stretching, strengthening, and symmetry — can not only alleviate back issues, but they can also prevent them from occurring.

How Pilates Helps

Pilates epitomizes the 3S: In a prenatal and postnatal class, you will get longer and leaner (stretching) while supporting your mobile joints (strengthening) and focusing on posture and alignment (symmetry). Additionally, Pilates teaches you how to work your muscles in isolation to reach proper alignment. In turn, you get strong enough to support your hypermobile joints.

By doing Pilates, you are able to isolate two muscles, the serratus anterior and latissimus dorsi, that will then counteract the forward posture you get as you breastfeed and carry your baby, in turn preventing you from tightening your neck and chest muscles. You are also equally able to isolate the gluteus medius, a butt muscle that stabilizes your hip joint. By taking over the stabilizing work in your hips, the gluteus medius allows the often painful piriformis muscle to relax, resulting in the easing of sciatic pain, as well as your pelvic floor muscles so they can relax for an easier birthing process.

Remain Mentally Strong Through Change

Antenatal and postnatal depression is estimated to affect one out of ten women. Additionally, 100 percent of new mothers will experience matrescence, which is a change of identity that happens when you experience sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, and new responsibilities.

What Research Shows

Strong social ties are key to combating mental health issues that may arise from matrescence. A study of 594 women in China found that women with weak social ties during the pre- and postnatal period were at an increased risk of developing depression. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where a lot of women are without close family support, new mothers are at risk of entering motherhood with mental health issues.

How Pilates Can Help

When taking a Pilates class, women often bond without fear of judgment because they are going through a similar journey of reconnecting with their bodies through a mindful practice that provides them with the opportunity to express their fears and concerns openly and honestly.

Choosing Your Pilates Instructor

When searching for a prenatal and postnatal Pilates instructor:

  • Always make sure they hold a diploma from the authority of fitness professionals in the UAE, REPs.
  • Make sure they have completed at least two to three days of training in the field and have a certificate to show for it.
  • Ask them a few questions about your pelvic floor issues or diastasis recti. If they seem knowledgeable on the subject, they may be a good fit.
  • Look for an instructor who will direct you to both lift and release your pelvic floor, not to just tighten it.
  • Make sure they take into account your history. If they do not seem to care about it, explore other options.